Handing out food

United Way of Citrus County CEO Meghan Pitzer, center, works with fellow United Way employees Jess Maloney, left, community engagement coordinator, and Jess Ebert, Prosperity Center director as the women and dozens of other volunteers help distribute food at the Citrus County Fairgrounds in April 2020. United Way is seeking CARES funds from the county to assist the community.

The United Way of Citrus County is helping families struggling financially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So why, United Way officials wonder, is it ineligible to receive CARES Act grants from the county, designed to do just that?

“We do provide COVID relief for families,” United Way of Citrus CEO Meghan Pitzer said Monday. “We are assisting several families every single day here. This money would be a huge help.”

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The short answer: It doesn’t qualify, according to County Administrator Randy Oliver, who suggests that if the county commission wants to provide CARES funds to United Way, it require insurance from the agency to cover the county should the state or federal government decide CARES funds can’t be spent that way and they want the money back.

CARES Act grants are meant for businesses and individuals who need assistance paying bills, like mortgage, rent or utilities.

The county received funds in two allotments of $6.5 million and $5.2 million. They awarded grants in four phases, with the final phase now complete.

Grant criteria generally excludes nonprofits, unless it’s to cover losses in a business, such as thrift stores. Also, nonprofits that run child day care programs, such as the YMCA, were eligible for funding.

County commissioners had a special meeting last week to decide how best to award more grants after the state government set a Nov. 16 deadline to submit final paperwork showing in detail how the money is spent.

The Citrus County Chamber of Commerce recommended several ways for the county to spend CARES grants to help businesses and individuals, including $150,000 to United Way.

Pitzer said she didn’t request that, but started to fill out the online application but stopped when it asked for the business tax information. As a nonprofit, United Way doesn’t pay a business tax.

Pitzer said Commissioner Jeff Kinnard explained that there isn’t enough time to award funds to United Way and have it encumbered by Nov. 16.

“To say we’re not eligible for funding is mind boggling to me,” she said, adding she appreciated Kinnard explaining the program to her.

Scott Carnahan mug

County Commissioner Scott Carnahan.

Commissioner Scott Carnahan, who is likely to become chairman at the board’s Nov. 17 annual organizational meeting, said he would be willing to listen if United Way makes a request for CARES funds.

“The big question is what is United Way going to do with the money?” he said. “There hasn’t really been a conversation at the board level about this.”

Pitzer said through donations, United Way has helped 200 families with COVID-related expenses, particularly rent and mortgage. She said the agency would not have trouble providing CARES funds for people who need it.

Kinnard said there is a chance CARES funds can reimburse the general fund for sheriff’s deputies salaries, and that could allow the county to provide COVID-19 assistance without a deadline.

Pitzer said she hopes the county will come through.

“It would help significantly,” she said. “We tried to do what we can. We know funds go out the door a lot quicker than they come in. We hear the stories. Having to pick and choose what we can help them with is heartbreaking.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com. To view more of his stories, go to www.tinyurl.com/y3bakm6w.